Rudolph Charles von Ripper

Rudolph Charles von Ripper (1905 – 1960) was an Austrian-born American surrealist painter and illustrator, soldier and Office of Strategic Services agent. Von Ripper led a colorful life.

Medic has obtained the partial military records of Von Ripper. Unfortunately they reveal next to nothing of his covert operations, consisting of award citations and routine orders. The file was obtained through the National Archives via the OSS Society.

Born in Cluj, in what is now in Romania, Von Ripper was the son of an Austrian baron and general. He had an excellent early education. After his father’s death and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, he ran away and worked in various jobs including as a coal miner and a circus clown, before studying art at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf.

He then moved to Paris, and at age 19 spent two years in the French Foreign Legion, where he was wounded in the Great Syrian Revolt.* He deserted the Legion and moved to Berlin, before traveling to Shanghai in 1928 as a filmmaker. On his return to Berlin in 1929 he met and married his first wife. Around 1933, von Ripper traveled to Majorca, where he produced anti-fascist drawings commissioned by the German resistance.

In October 1933, von Ripper returned to Berlin, now under Nazi rule, bringing with him copies of the Brown Book (Braunbuch), an anti-Nazi publication written by German left-wing groups in exile and published in Paris. He was arrested by the Gestapo, accused of high treason, imprisoned and tortured. Several months later he managed to get a message to Austrian Chancellor, who had him released, with a requirement to leave all Nazi-held territories.

Von Ripper returned to Majorca, where he created a series of art pieces. In October 1935, fourteen of these pieces were exhibited at the Tooth Gallery in London under the title “Kaleidoscope.” According to the New York Times they “created a sensation in the art world”. The German ambassador asked that the show be censored, but British authorities refused. The drawings for the exhibition, intended for publication, disappeared from the printer. Von Ripper recreated the pictures as etchings on copper plates, which were published in Paris in a limited edition in 1938 under the title Ecrasez l’infame (To Crush Tyranny), a reference to Voltaire.

After the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, in which Franco’s coup was supported by troops from Nazi Germany, von Ripper joined the Republican Army to fight Germans. In 1937, serving as an aerial gunner in the Spanish Republican Air Force, his plane was shot down and his left leg riddled with shrapnel. Told by doctors the leg would have to be amputated, he left before they could do so.

In 1938, unable to return to combat, von Ripper traveled to New York City, settled for a time in Greenwich Village and exhibited his art at galleries. In 1939, he earned a residency at Yaddo, then moved to Connecticut and established an art studio in a century-old barn.

In January 1939 Time magazine used von Ripper’s picture captioned ‘From the unholy organist, a hymn of hate,’ from his book Ecrasez l’infame, on the front cover of the issue, which named Adolf Hitler as 1938’s Man of the Year. The issue also profiled von Ripper and his art, which soon after was published in Fortune magazine, and elsewhere. In 1941, Von Ripper and his first wife were expelled from the German Empire.

When the United States joined World War II, in 1941, von Ripper attempted to join the American army but was initially rejected due to his health. Meanwhile, he painted propaganda posters for the Office of War Information.

In 1942, he was admitted to the U.S. Army for ‘limited service only’ due to his war wounds, and initially served as a hospital laboratory technician. He transferred to the Corps of Engineers War Art Unit in 1943, and was sent to North Africa as an artist correspondent, where he worked alongside Ernie Pyle, who in his 1944 book Brave Men wrote: “One of the most fabulous characters in that war theater was Lieutenant Rudolf Charles von Ripper. He was so fabulous, a man might have been justified in thinking him a phony until he got to know him. … He was no phony. Von Ripper was the kind they write books about.”

When the Army Artist Unit was dissolved in May 1943 von Ripper, who was multilingual, transferred to the Intelligence Section to interrogate prisoners. Assigned to the 34th Infantry Division, he took part in the Invasion of Italy and acquired the nickname “Jack the Ripper.” He also served as acting intelligence officer of the 2nd Battalion of the 168th Infantry Regiment, where he led patrols against Nazi positions, either with squads or alone. For actions in these sorties he was awarded the Purple Heart, and won the Silver Star twice and was promoted to first lieutenant, which a fellow artist described as “a battlefield appointment about which much should be said.”

On a later patrol he was ambushed and wounded in his right hand, left leg and face by machine gun fire. Taken to Naples to recover, he worked on paintings based on his front line sketches, which he made during his time in combat. Von Ripper’s audacity was such that he was forbidden to lead patrols without permission.

In December 1943, von Ripper’s art was included in The Army at War, a War Department exhibition of combat art. Writing in the catalogue for the exhibition, he wrote:

“A soldier-artist is a painter with a gun, a man to fight at times and to paint at other times. And in that he is very lucky: He can divert his effort from destruction, from killing, which is the soldier’s job, to creative work, to build, make new things.”

In February 1944, returned to the front, von Ripper’s bravery at the Battle of Monte Cassino drew the attention of the OSS. Recruited into its Secret Intelligence Branch, he parachuted into Austria early in 1945 to recon and organize resistance.

He left the OSS in late 1945 with the rank of captain, though some commentators suggest he continued as an operative for the CIA. Von Ripper was involved in successfully finding Gestapo and Nazi officials hiding in Austria, which may have led to his downfall. He returned to Europe in 1946 and taught at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna.

Around this time he obtained a divorce from his first wife, and married art critic Evelyn Leege, with whom he returned to his pre-war home in Connecticut. He earned two Guggenheim Fellowships for fine art painting, in 1945 and 1947.

In 1947, a portfolio of thirty of von Ripper’s etchings was published in New York in 200 numbered editions, under the title “With the 34th Infantry Division in Italy” with a foreword from Major General Charles W. Ryder.

In 1950, the Von Ripper’s moved to a villa called Ca’n Cueg (House of the Frogs) near Pollença on Majorca, despite the island still being under the Francoist regime that von Ripper had fought against in the 1930s. Their house became known for hosting glamorous parties with international guests. Shortly afterwards, former Nazi officer Otto Skorzeny moved in nearby.

In 1960, returning from a four-month trip, von Ripper was arrested by Spanish police and charged with smuggling. A wartime comrade who had cautioned him against returning to Majorca believed that this might be the Spanish regime seeking revenge against him. Former Nazi’s also held grudges against him.

On July 9, 1960, while on bail awaiting trial, von Ripper stepped outside his villa. He was found dead the following morning by Evelyn, with his death recorded as a heart attack, though some commentators considered the death suspicious. His obituary in the New York Times was headed, “Rudolf von Ripper, Artist, Dies; War Hero Served With O. S. S.” He is buried in the cemetery at Pollença.

In the 1990s, workers clearing out the Ca’n Cueg villa found a large number of papers and sketches belonging to von Ripper, which formed the basis of Sian Mackay’s book Von Ripper’s Odyssey: War, Resistance, Art and Love. It is a flawed book, marred by the repetition of full proper names, and poorly reconstructed scenes and dialog, but otherwise provides a window into the life of this very brave, principled and prolifc man. One wonders if he knew or knew of the Polish WWII army infantry officer, POW, artist and art critic Jozef Czapski, whom Eric Karpeles has written about in his excellent book Almost Nothing.


* The Great Syrian Revolt or Revolt of 1925 was a general uprising across the State of Syria and Greater Lebanon during the period of 1925 to 1927. The common goal was to end French rule in the newly mandated regions, passed from Turkish to French administration following WW I.

Further reading:

Army Moves to Save Legacy of the Baron –Aristocrat, Artist, Spy, and WWII Legend,

Three essays, including art work from the 109th Engineers 34th Division blog.

An essay in The Skeptical Scott by Von Ripper biographer Sian MacKay.